White Zimbabwean takes a stand

Three generations of Roy Bennett's family have owned farms amid the rocky outcrops jutting up between the pine and wattle trees here. He is popular in town, and speaks fluent Shona, the main language of the black majority. Mr. Bennett is just one of the locals, he even has a Shona nickname - Pachedu, meaning "together."

But he is white and defiant. And in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF Party and an army of war veterans are meting out violent punishment to opponents, both qualities make him a target.

In the past three months, more than 1,200 white-owned farms have been occupied, four white farmers have been killed, and some 20 others have died in the violence.

But despite Mr. Mugabe's announcement May 16 that parliamentary elections will take place on June 24 and 25, many doubt just how fair they will be - and how soon the violence and intimidation will end.

Against this backdrop of fear and retaliation, Bennett took a stand in a dramatic confrontation last week. Bennett had switched camps from Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, and decided to run on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change ticket.

This infuriated ZANU-PF officials, because ZANU-PF's present, unpopular candidate is retiring, and they say Bennett has a real chance to win.

On May 4, party thugs attacked the house of Bennett's campaign manager, James Mukwaya, smashing all the windows and damaging the roof.

Then last week, the local head of ZANU-PF led about 50 party supporters armed with sticks and machetes in an invasion of Bennett's farm. His workers were rounded up and forced to chant ZANU-PF slogans, according to Rocky Stone, the farm manager who later fled.

"Pamberi ZANU-PF, [Forward with ZANU PF]," one of the invaders shouted in Shona at one of Bennett's farm workers.

The farm worker pumped his clenched fist in the air and shouted "Pamberi Pachedu," using Bennett's Shona name. The astounded slogan-master again shouted the ZANU-PF cry - to which the farm worker again responded "Forward with Pachedu!"

To save the farm worker from a lashing, a woman falsely indicated with a hand gesture that the man was crazy. The slogan-master believed her and moved on.

But they taunted other workers, forcing them to say "MDC" and to spit on the ground. One "didn't spit enough, so they pulled him out and beat him with sticks," another man says. The invaders demanded a meeting, saying that Bennett could either stand down as a candidate or he and his family would be killed.

The meeting was held May 11 at the Chimanimani Country Club, where Bennett was met by the local head of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), the local head of ZANU-PF, two war veterans, the police, an official from the Ministry of National Affairs, and a pick-up truck loaded with 10 men in ZANU-PF T-shirts. "I want you to tell the people to vote for ZANU-PF.... The ex-combatants can hit and they can kill," said one obviously drunk man who identified himself as comrade Cobra. After their closed-door meeting, the National Affairs official, a Mr. Ndzama (who refused to provide his full name) said Bennett was free to stay on his farm and would be safe.

Bennett emerged from the confrontation red-faced and angry: "They said I was aligned with MDC, and I am a traitor. They said I had betrayed ZANU-PF."

The more important message: Bennett could withdraw from the election or potentially lose his and his family's lives.

Undaunted, Bennett insists, "They can take my farm, but I am still running [for Parliament]."

Bennett later says he believes white farmers are making the situation worse and conferring legitimacy on the farm invaders by engaging in endless rounds of talks. "If the good people sit by and watch evil prevail, we are going nowhere. I am committed.... I realize the implications.... I realize the danger. I believe righteousness will always overrule evil," he says. "The people of Zimbabwe are being suppressed by a very, very evil regime."

Although the government official Ndzama and the veterans assured him in the presence of journalists that he could return to his farm, the next day they refused to allow Bennett to remove personal possessions and farm implements.

FOR now, Bennett can only wait until the June election. He believes he can win, despite his race, because he has already campaigned extensively and has long maintained close relations with the community.

When Bennett moved to Chimanimani, he presented himself to the local chiefs as a subject and has worked hard to maintain relations. He built and runs a school and medical clinic on his property. He used his buying power to run discount grocery and sundry shops in the neighboring communal land and sells excess milk to workers and neighbors at one-eighth the retail price.

For refusing to condemn him, Bennett's nurse and store manager have both been beaten since Bennett's confrontation. But he argues that many Zimbabwean whites have not made much effort to interact with the black population. "The people who stay here have to get involved and know the people," he says.

"Politics here is a little bit dangerous," says one man randomly stopped on the road. "But we are expecting Mr. Bennett to be our MP here. He is here for development. We were attacked by the cyclone here and he helped rebuild our roads and bridges. We love him."

"We do love him," chimes in Trynos Makado, an unemployed man. "We have seen some threats by ZANU-PF, but we can't do anything because they are armed and we can't fight them with stones. Guys from Harare are coming here to cause trouble with the CIO guys. They are saying 'If you want, we can give you land. If you don't vote for us we will kill you.' "

As Bennett drove to his meeting, he sped past a lumber truck. A worker in the vehicle extended his hand to Bennett in the open-hand MDC salute. Minutes later another group walking from the saw mill raised their hands in the same salute.

Less bold were some others Bennett passed outside a shack where men carve wooden chairs and assemble iron burglar bars. A few workers looked around and whispered a refusal to discuss Bennett. "In politics you can die," one man says. "We are very worried.... Pachedu is all right. He was the person who was sending some lorries to people in the communal areas, giving some work on his farm," says a man grinding iron fittings who refused to offer his name.

Can Bennett win? "Yes of course," he adds. "When the cyclone came, he was the first person to send his trucks to clear the roads.... People are afraid to talk about politics. Myself, I will have to vote, otherwise there is no way out."

If voters share that affection for Bennett, he could become the first white MP elected here since Zimbabwe scrapped the 20 seats guaranteed to whites. "I am not going to be intimidated...." Bennett says. "If I lose my life to it, so be it. For my children to have a life in this country, someone has to make a stand," he vows.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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